November 2016 Transportation by barge as an alternative to intermodal transport

Use of transportation by barge

The systems of transportation by barge have long been used as an alternative to land transport. This mean of transportation is competitive to trains and trucks. In addition, it significantly allows the reduction of the environmental footprint of the transport of goods.

There are two major segments in the market, long and the short distance.

Long-distance is used in large rivers, such as Mississippi, Rhine, Danube and St Lawrence in transporting the goods from one end to the other of the continents.

This system is competitive to trains and trucks, but its performance depends greatly on the quality of the underlying infrastructure and the interconnection of the navigational channels. In return, barges offer the advantage to adapt to different types of products transported and allow more flexibility for the navigation on the various courses of water. They offer capacities ranging from 350 to 11 000 tonnes of deadweight and use proven technologies.

On short distances, this type of transport is growing and presents new opportunities.  Pilot projects have demonstrated this effectiveness, in particular, to reduce congestion in the areas of access to port sites of international trade.

Despite the high volume of activities and the economic benefits that flow from port activities, access to facilities remains constrained due to the movement of trucks and trains. The comings and the goings of land vehicles pose a problem by the noise, air and ground pollution, and by the loss of time related to the traffic congestion. In addition, the congestion of port activities reduces the effectiveness of the supply chain by increasing the time of distribution of the goods to the markets of destination.

To solve these problems and, as a counterweight to the costly alternatives that the investments represent in the construction, enlargement and the optimization of access by road or rail to intermodal transport, transport by barge has proved to be an effective solution. The goods, rather than transhipped in trains or trucks, are filed on barges that  borrow the navigation channels, natural or artificial.

The growth factors

The growth of this mode of transport is structural. Its evolution is characterized in the long term by the evolution of certain industries and industrial change.  For example, the exploitation of oil shale in United States requires that it be routed over long distances to centers of refinery. Unlike the imported oil, the refinement can be carried out in the vicinity of ports. Oil shale is still an important vector of growth of transport by barge. The same goes for agricultural products originating in the back-country and which are shipped to ports for export.

Another equally important factor is linked to the phenomenon of gigantism that limits the access of coastal areas to certain types of vessels of large template. In order to optimize the distribution, the transhipment is carried out in the deepwater ports, geographically centralized and that act as ‘hub’. The goods are filed on connector ships or the barges and are routed to the destination markets.  The container market is particularly targeted by this type of activity, since it is the most affected by the phenomenon of bigness of vessels.

The situation in the United States

The Market

The system of waterways in the United States extends some 12 000 miles (American) in 38 states. In 2012, 565 million tonnes of goods were traveling on American interior waters for a value of 214 billion US$. A good part of this volume is related to long distance since the average distance by barge was of 450 miles. According to Market Research Store, this industry is expected to increase by approximately 2 per cent per year until 2019, the essential being supported by the energy sector.  [1]

The major areas of transport are concentrated in the East as indicated in the map that follows. Transport by barge is performed on the Mississippi River, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and, to a lesser extent, on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. According to the latest available data (2004), the Mississippi River accounted for 65% of the traffic, whereas Lake Michigan and coastal traffic accounted for the difference (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2004). This proportion has probably  not changed since.

Nearly 500 000 jobs supported

A recent impact study (2014) demonstrates that approximately 500,000 full-time jobs are supported by this industry. The impact simulations carried out indicate that if the transportation by barge were performed by truck or train, that there would be a significant relocation of the economic activities in certain regions of the United States. But, this recovery of jobs would only be partial, that to say 30%. [2]

Network of navigable routes to the United States

Source: U.S. Waterways, has barge Sector Industrial oragnisation analysis, March 2005

According to this same study, investments in the construction and modernisation of facilities would lead in different industrial sectors in the creation of 350,000 new jobs on the first twenty years and revenues of $14 billion.


The U.S. federal government recognizes the benefit of this type of transport, and considers that the navigation channels are under-exploited.

The program MARAD (America Marine Highway Program), administered by the Department of Transport of the federal government aims to integrate 29 000 nautical miles of navigable water of the United States to the transportation network in the United States, in particular in order to reduce road congestion, improve quality of the air and reduce costs of maintenance of road network.

The administration of the Port of New York and New Jersey (APNYNJ) has benefited from this program. It is the busiest of the East coast of the U.S. with a market share of 30%. The value of the goods handled was of the order of $US 200 billion in 20014, a volume of 3 342 286 containers.

The APNYNJ has opted to carry a part of the volume of containers by barge between the Terminal Red Hook to Brooklyn and the Port Newark. In 2015, this has led to the displacement of 35 000 containers, the equivalent of 60 000 trucks on the roads of the region. The impact on air pollution is evaluated to a decrease of 1 600 tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The situation in Europe

The European Commission also considers transport by barge as a priority among the different modes of transport given the enormous problems of congestion on the roads in Europe. It also considers that  waterways are untapped.   Several European governments have also put in place policies for the development of the market of containers on barge. They recognize as well considerable growth potential.

The map below illustrates the influence and the concentration of activities of major ports of northern Europe, whose Rotterdam (445 Mt and 12.3 TEU : 2015  ), ANTWERP (199 Mt and 9 TEU), Hamburg (147 Mt and 9.7 TEUS). From these major sea ports, the goods may be routed on the large rivers such as the Rhine, the river Seine, the Rhone and Danube to join the domestic markets and even Eastern Europe.

The network of navigable routes in Europe

Source: multimodal transport and trade facilitation, Southeast European Forum

The market segment of containers has steadily increased since 2000 because of low transaction costs and the high level of reliability. Already, more than 35% of the transport of goods from Rotterdam and Antwerp in Belgium is distributed to the hinterland by barge, 3 million (TEUS) in 2002. The transport of containers by barge on the Rhine represented 1.3 million TEUS. This proportion is  higher today.

A few lessons to be learned

Land transportation is costly. In this sector, a substantial amount of money is invested for the maintenance of roads, and are most often damaged by the passage of trucks. These costs are borne by taxpayers.

For their part, trains are getting longer and carry dangerous goods without be exempted from any risk of danger to the communities.

Multimodal ports sites can cause considerable problems of congestion on the terrestrial links, with important consequences on the pollution of the air, noise and of the soil as well as the costs of waiting time. This can affect the effectiveness of the ports to serve their clienteles. This effectiveness depends also of the quality of their intermodal links and their capacity to tranship quickly the goods.

The transport of goods by barge may represent an advantageous solution compared to land transport. However, governments in the past have spent substantial amounts of money to improve the access to intermodal port and encourage the use of modes of transport on land, without equivalent efforts for the transportation by water.

Waterways are under-used and offer an interesting potential for development. Different programs have been put in place in order to increase their use, especially in the United States and in Europe.

The simulations of economic impacts show that in the United States there would be major economical impacts.  If  infrastructure by way of water were upgraded (ex Lock Systems and interconnection).





[1] Market Research Store, Http://

[2] INLAND NAVIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES, year evalution of economic impact and potential effects of infrastructure investement, 2014, page 10



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